Thoughts on Recycling
GMU economist Don Boudreaux made an important point in his 2002 Freeman article "I Recycle" that even though he and others might be part of the 23% who tell pollsters that they don't officially "recycle," they still do a lot of "unofficial recycling" every day, e.g. re-using many household items like towels, coffee mugs, dishes, utensils, clothes, shoes, appliances, CDs, furniture, and books.
Don concludes: "Reflecting on the impressive amount of recycling that actually takes place daily casts doubt on the prevailing misperception that people are naturally wasteful and mindlessly irresponsible. In fact, market prices compel us to recycle when recycling is appropriate—and to not recycle when recycling is inappropriate."
I've been thinking about recycling lately and Don's article, and have a few thoughts:
1. Even for the 77% of Americans who claim to regularly "recycle," they usually only recycle a very narrow and limited number of items like newspapers, bottles and cans. Don Boudreaux uses the example of paper plates, and suggests that it would be possible, but too costly, in terms of the time involved compared to the benefits, to re-use paper plates. Therefore, most people, even the most dedicated, religious "recyclers," do not bother to recycle their paper plates.
Likewise, there are many other items that even the most committed and devoted "recyclers" don't usually bother to re-use a second time: coffee filters, paper cups, dental floss, paper towels, paper napkins, Q-tips, toothpicks, plastic utensils, and Kleenex tissues.
2. Even when 77% of Americans say they recycle items like newspapers, bottles and cans, what they almost always mean is that they recycle using the "lazy approach," and they actually have somebody else do the actual work of recycling their discarded items (usually after a single use). The "lazy approach" means that instead of actually re-using those items themselves, they put their newspapers, bottles and cans in a special green bin instead of their regular garbage can, and send those items off for somebody else to do the actual, real work of re-using those items.
For example, there are lots of ways for "real recyclers" to actually recycle their own newspapers, instead of being "lazy recyclers" and having somebody else do their work. There are lots of websites (including here and here) that provide great ideas on how to recycle newspaper including:
"Recycle newspaper into new paper by tearing it up, soaking it in warm water until it becomes pulp, then spread the pulp on an old window screen covered in a piece of fabric. When it dries, you have great recycled card stock for projects and gifts."
And there are some great ways to be a non-lazy "active recycler" of bottles, for example go here and here to see pictures of the many items that can be made with bottles including light fixtures, Christmas trees, chandeliers, houses, entire temples, and solar water heaters (see photos above).
Bottom Line: 1) The 23% of American "non-recyclers" actually do a lot of recycling, especially when the benefits outweigh the costs (clothes, silverware, plates, towels, etc.).
2) The 77% of American "recyclers" are actually most often "lazy recyclers" and don't do their own recycling. Instead, they have somebody else do the recycling for them, and they don't for example use their bottles to make furniture or their newspaper to make paper.
3) The active "recyclers" limit their recycling very narrowly to select items like cans, bottles and newspapers, and even these religious recyclers don't recycle many potentially reusable items like toothpicks and coffee filters.